Yesterday we published a post on Politico‘s scathing critique of Liberty University. It is likely that Liberty’s president Jerry Falwell Jr. will be spending the next few days doing damage control to counter some of the more troubling aspects brought to light by writer and Liberty graduate Brandon Ambrosino.
But let’s be fair to Liberty University. Not everyone at the Lynchburg, Virginia Christian university agrees with Falwell Jr., his support of Donald Trump, or the way he runs his university. The voices of these dissenters are often not heard because they fear for their jobs if they speak out against the administration. As Ambrosino noted in his Politico piece, the faculty at Liberty do not have tenure. Falwell Jr. also seems to have control over the Board of Trustees. Just ask Mark DeMoss. It is a very unhealthy place in terms of academic freedom and intellectual diversity, even within the rather limited bounds of evangelical Protestantism.
I know a lot of people who are connected with Liberty University. I have met students who have chosen Liberty over my own institution, Messiah College. Young people from my church attend Liberty. This week my niece started her freshman year at the university. I know several faculty members. I have spoken at Liberty University and I have served as an outside reader on a masters thesis. One of my best research assistants is a Liberty University graduate.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have disagreements with the way Jerry Falwell Jr. runs his university. I have also been critical of his committed court evangelicalism. But there are good people at Liberty who are just trying to teach well, do good scholarship, and live-out their academic vocation in a place where they have the freedom to integrate faith and learning. For example, I was heartened to see that two Liberty University professors signed this statement.
I was also heartened to read Phillip Wagner recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “My Liberty University Diploma and Me.” Wagner is a Liberty graduate who is Director of Curriculum and Chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. Wagner had a good intellectual experience at Liberty, but he also realizes that it is not easy going through life a Liberty pedigree.
Here is a taste of Wagner’s piece:
But it hasn’t always been easy to have “Liberty University” on my CV. I was fortunate to have several job prospects when completing my doctorate. Yet at every single on-campus interview, whether over dinner or in the interview itself, I was asked about my experience at Liberty. Sometimes it was posed as an innocent question, but more often it was framed as something that I needed to defend. And I couldn’t help wondering: If I had to defend my credentials at every interview I landed, then what colleges weren’t even giving me a shot once they saw those credentials?
Recently Liberty has made the news again. President Falwell, a vocal Trump supporter, came out in support of the president’s comments on Charlottesville, in which he laid blame on “all sides” for the violence and chaos surrounding the planned removal of a Confederate statue.
As Trump doubled down on this accusation, Falwell doubled down on his support of the president and his comments. That was the final straw for many alumni, who convened on Facebook to discuss their heartfelt — and respectful — disgust. Charlottesville is just down the road from Lynchburg, the wonderful town that is home to Liberty. The life lost and the damage done don’t reflect Central Virginia, and they certainly don’t reflect the voices of all Liberty alumni.
Therein lies the problem. There are many of us who carry Liberty University with us wherever we go. I’ve not tried to hide my Liberty credentials or degrees, partly because that time in my life brought so many great memories. Those memories aren’t political, nor are they controversial. I did grow there as a scholar and as a critical thinker. But this growth isn’t what most see when they look at my degrees. They don’t see an educational institution — they see a political enterprise.
In a recent mass campaign, many alumni have rallied to make it known that President Falwell’s comments do not reflect their own beliefs. In response and protest, many alumni are planning to mail their diplomas back to the university.
I am not one of them. I won’t be sending my diplomas back, because they weren’t something given to me — I earned them. But I can’t help acknowledging the ethical struggle I face as a scholar, teacher, and supporter of diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do I convey my support for students of color when the credentials behind my name might suggest otherwise? How meaningful and sincere are my gestures taken to be, considering that the very credentials that helped build the platform on which I express them are seen as invalidating them?
I have spoken to, or received messages from, dozens of Liberty University graduates who feel the same way. See, for example, Joy Beth Smith’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times.